I’m revisiting the bar where I celebrated my twenty-second birthday. Bar Barka, in Prague. It’s a bit different now. It used to have the signature of being a sea-themed bar, years ago designed to look like the deck of a pirate ship; now it’s just a bar that sits slightly underground, still decorated with scuba tanks, a deep sea diving helmet, life rafts scattered about. All remnants of piracy are gone.
The bar’s entrance, the way I remember it, used to make me feel like I was approaching a ship head on, all on deck except for the ship’s bowsprit. Wood composed the walls and the floor, life rafts were still hung all around, but there were no preserved and petrified stingrays or sea horses, or pictures of coral reefs, like the ones on the walls now. What I remember was a little more sketchy, a place my friends and I were wary of entering all the way the first time we saw this place, worried we’d stick out as young, lost Americans.
From what I can recall of my birthday, I was treated to too many shots of absinthe and vodka. I don’t know how I managed (even with help) to get back to the pension, where a classmate and I went to her room to fool around until we were found out and I then went to bed.
This bar, these memories—neither especially fond nor especially painful for me to revisit—doesn’t reek of nostalgia. It isn’t a place I ever want or need to be in again, but I came back because I thought that I might feel the nostalgia—that nostalgia that’s supposed to hurt, that holds a bittersweet tinge, the first swallow of whiskey before a luscious aftertaste.
My own memory of this place doesn’t fit what I see now, which is gimmicky—too remnant of all the themed bars and restaurants in the U.S. and, because of this, inauthentic in its Europeanness. I don’t like it now because it isn’t fitting with my idea of Europe.
“My idea of Europe”: This word choice is historically dangerous, though I hope to circumvent any shivers by noting that my idea is nothing I could, or would, implement by any measure of force. I have no desire to change what I see here. Just to report it.
My idea of Europe begins with being lost—lost at the tongue and at the eyes and at the ears. I’ve taken Spanish and French in school, but not enough for any real navigation—and being able to navigate language, idiom, and culture helps me feel at home. There’s an estrangement in all of this that I feel whenever I’m in Europe.
In Europe I feel five again. When I was five, my oldest sister was taking Spanish and used to label the things around the house with Post-It notes in Spanish vocabulary. Cama for bed, luz for light, puerta for door. In Europe I find myself whispering foreign words again like I did when I was little, often in languages I have little to no understanding of. I’m reading signs and trying to sound out the words as if it’ll help me learn the language, though I know it won’t. My pronunciation might get a little better, but there’s nothing I’ll absorb here by whispering.
Not just Europe in general but Prague, specifically, has over the years become my third home—after Normal, IL, and Chicago—because of the things I’ve learned to navigate here. I’ve studied abroad here twice, once as an undergraduate and again during graduate school, and I’ve visited for leisure, but I’m still a stranger here. Still a stranger in my third home. I watch others to try and discern how I, the American, might have offended them. Am I standing too close? Do I take up too much room, like an American manspreader? Did I use the wrong, an insincere, thank you? How long of a look counts as a stare?
What am I allowed to do here but shouldn’t because I’m still an alien?